Privilege and the Personal-Political in Writing

In this second part of Science Fiction and the Personal-Political, we begin with the influence of privilege on our perceptions of literature. My ever-handy dictionary defines privilege as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.”

Positions of privilege allow some readers to imagine such a thing as non-political or apolitical writing, perhaps especially in fiction. Ignorantly or willfully, privilege offers the power to ignore social subtexts. It is possible, too, that blindness to subtexts can also lie with the oppressed—a different issue, and an understandable one, stemming from persistently imposed narratives about one’s own race, gender, or background. Our focus here will be on the former, it being a contributor to the latter.

For example, one might enjoy Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as an intelligent, witty tale of tangled romance, a prototype for all romances since, whose enduring theme has always been love conquers all. 

Yet Pride and Prejudice tells of the fraught but inevitable courtship between Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet—to this day, still sentimental beach reading—but its more important subtexts swim just beneath the surface, a shark out in the literary surf. Pride and Prejudice is, far more importantly, a damning commentary on the socioeconomic oppression of women, certainly during Austen’s time, and by extension today.

Its plot rests on the legal realities of nineteenth-century England and the entailing of property, which Austen emphasized as well in Sense and Sensibility. Mr. Benet’s daughters could not inherit, not even if he desired. If unmarried at his death, Elizabeth and her four sisters would become destitute, homeless, and anathema. The story’s courtship, proposals, and romance occur not only with entailing as the backdrop, but solely because of it. The romantic misadventures overlay a tapestry of insurmountable legal constraint, oppression, and sexual politics. The personal narrative of Pride and Prejudice contains an outcry for public reform which, once perceived, dominates it.

Without the constraints of entailing, imagine the plot: Darcy is irrelevant by chapter nine. Lizzy bides her time and, after inheriting a fortune, the smart, capable, witty woman could have leveraged her own means and done anything she liked—man optional—using her astute skills of social observation to work the markets of an industrializing England. I’d buy that story.

Pride and Prejudice was a cry for women’s agency a century before suffrage. So much for “sentimental beach reading.”

Similarly, the other romantics and gothics wrote narratives ripe with sociopolitical subtext. In Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, the character of Catherine Earnshaw withers (wuthers?), her true nature crushed by sociocultural pressure. Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of the most complex stories ever told, multilayered and the forerunner of modern science fiction; it utterly rejects everything society normalized prior to the nineteenth century. Stoker’s Dracula brims with commentary about emerging industrialism, empowered femininity, homosexuality, and capitalism—all impossible for Stoker to express publicly, in his era, without the mask of fiction. Anachronistically, removed from these texts by two centuries, we may impose meaning on them, but this remains true: these were never mere entertainments, fluffy stories of tragic romance, mad scientists, and creatures of the night.

These were powerful personal-political statements.

Similarly, there are no great works of literature which do not illuminate the personal-political. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or Nabokov; Woolf, Mansfield, or Stein—none were ever anything but political in their themes, whether overtly or in terms of personal identity. Moreover, their politics could be complex and difficult to pigeonhole.1 We should be reminded today, in our era of polarized politics, that political thinking can and perhaps should be viewed through more nuanced lenses. We needn’t fall into camps. We don’t have to be tribal.

Personally, I go so far as to argue that tribalism, as a mode of being, belongs firmly in humanity’s past. It’s no good to us anymore.

Interestingly, the authors of yesteryear sometimes rejected the political natures of their own works—Woolf spurned political attributions, belying her own nature.2 Her view of her own work suggests the rather strange idea that, once stories and novels and other creative artifacts spread into the world, the author too becomes simply one more subjective reader of it.

The personal-political quality of contemporary fiction is no less present or powerful than it was for the modernists. Sometimes graceful (re: Ondaatje),3 sometimes clumsy (re: Franzen),4 it is perhaps more concerned with identity politics and domesticity than were its forebears, but perhaps not; identity politics has been the politics of the last century, first blindingly white and now increasingly rainbow. (Though like some, I’m half convinced that we’re better off remembering that identity politics actually belong to a more complete schema called civil rights.) Yet identity politics, today exemplified by the bloodsport known in one form as hating Jonathan Franzen, are emblematic of contemporary literature, only serving to underscore literature’s unavoidably political nature.5

Still, I can hear the affirmed escapists asking, “But what about the real beach reading?”

The mainstream fiction? Today’s romances? Can’t we just have a frivolous read, without all the weighty and responsible thematics?

Sorry, no. We may read any story for escapism, but we must disable our inner critic if we’re to pretend it’s apolitical.

Does any given bodice-ripper6 reinforce or challenge mores of sex, gender, and race? Does it exclude the disempowered or promote cultural diversity, repeating tropes comforting to WASPy readers in suburban America but disempowering to urban women, minorities, or even men? Does it reinforce stalking behavior and patterns of abuse in relationships7—never mind Fifty Shades of Grey?8 Nearly every romance, on some level, rises to these issues or fails to our collective detriment. Worse, embedded in the genre is the need to resolve on the upbeat—love always triumphs—which often necessitates glossing over or stopping short of any darker undertones.

Before I’m accused of unfairly needling a genre outside my own, I refer you to Jackie C. Horne’s excellent discussion of the romance genre and politics following the 2015 Presidential election.9 Truly, we are capable of ignoring personal-political themes in any writing only when they are so familiar to us as to be invisible.

What about whodunits and mysteries?

Notice the preponderance of youthful, well-to-do, attractive, white women-as-victims in twentieth- and twenty-first-century thrillers? The detectives leap to help them or to uncover their murderers, no matter the costs. But black women, old women, disfigured women, cat ladies? Not so much—

Young, beautiful, white women are simply too valuable a commodity, and psycho-killers can’t be allowed to run about, willy-nilly, murdering them. Everyone else, though? Well, we’ll get to those murders if we have the time. 

“Missing white-woman syndrome” exists in literature as much as it does in real life.10 But does fiction reflect life, or life reflect fiction?11 Certainly, they reinforce one another.

Even in science fiction, we have The Expanse12—Detective Miller has seen a lot of bad shit go down, out there on Ceres, but wow does he go out of his way for a young, rich, and beautiful Claire Mao.

The future, it appears, will not be much different than the present. But at least Mao isn’t white.

The point here is this: Writers have more license than most to alter the narrative of society. “Ils doivent envisager qu’une grande responsabilité est la suite inséparable d’un grand pouvoir.”—They must consider that great responsibility follows inseparably from great power.13

Should we not change toward some better aim, offering some scaffolding for or warning about the future?

In mainstream fiction, politics abound. Toward the end of his life, Michael Crichton became overtly political, but political themes run throughout his many novels. Stephen King, these days vocal about his positions, infused even his early books with underlying personal-political ideas. J.K. Rowling, Danielle Steele, Jackie Collins, Dean Koontz, Paulo Coelho, James Patterson, C.S. Lewis, Clive Cussler, Anne Rice, Ian Fleming, or Tom Clancy—each has written through a lens which reinforced or challenged existing power structures, and each text may be reinterpreted today around personal-political themes. Each also still counts among the best-selling authors of all time.

Despite this, in fiction writing—literary and genre, if indeed these are separate pursuits—the word political often draws disdain, as if entertainment must necessarily be apolitical. As if it can be. If our grocery lists can’t avoid the political, what hope does our fiction have?

Footnotes

  1. Will, Barbara. (2012). The Strange Politics of Gertrude Stein. Humanities, 33(2).
  2. Carroll. Berenice. (1978). “To Crush Him in Our Own Country”: The Political Thought of Virginia Woolf. Feminist Studies, 4(1).
  3. Ondaatje, Michael. (1992). The English Patient.
  4. Franzen, Jonathan. (2015). Purity.
  5. Volynets, Steven. (2015). The Literary Industrial Complex of Hating Jonathan Franzen. Observer, 5 Sept. <http://observer.com/2015/09/the-literary-industrial-complex-of-hating-jonathan-franzen/>
  6. I realize bodice-ripper has been more or less rejected by romance writers. Sorry, I’m using it anyway.
  7. McMillan, Graeme. (2009). Official: Twilight’s Bella & Edward Are In An Abusive Relationship. io9, 28 Nov. <http://io9.gizmodo.com/5413428/official-twilights-bella–edward-are-in-an-abusive-relationship>
  8. James, E.L. (2011). Fifty Shades of Grey.
  9. Horne, Jackie C. (2016). Romance Novels in the Wake of the U.S. Presidential Election. Romance Novels for Feminists, 11 Nov. <http://romancenovelsforfeminists.blogspot.com/2016/11/romance-novels-in-wake-of-us.html>
  10. See <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missing_white_woman_syndrome>.
  11. Martin, Michel. (2014). Does Justice For Murder Victims Depend on Race, Geography? National Public Radio, 13 Jan. <http://www.npr.org/2014/01/13/262082861/does-justice-for-murder-victims-depend-on-race-geography>
  12. Corey, James S.A.; Abraham, Daniel & Franck, Ty. (2011). Leviathan Wakes.
  13. Sorry, Spider-Man fans. Those words first came from the French National Convention of 1793.